Race, Class & Caribbean Feminism

Discussing race and class with regards to Caribbean feminism can be tricky. The mythology of our islands being a racial "melting pot" has led to many people wrongly believing that we have no issues of race and class or that these issues are irrelevant to feminism. The fact that there are many wealthy black people in the Caribbean has confused people.

Despite the fact that there are wealthy black people and despite the fact that there are many black women, issues of race and class are still of utmost importance to women's issues. When thinking about race and class, we need to focus on systems of oppression, not our individual, anecdotal beliefs (many of which are informed by misinformation by international mainstream media).

Race and class have an impact on women's lives and I've discussed this before on this blog. When thinking about race and class, we need to avoid the belief that whiteness and multi-racial identities are "neutral" and therefore not worth examining. Blackness isn't the only identity that requires dissection as white people, non-black people and multiracial individuals all have different identities that affect their experience in the Caribbean.I happen to live in Saint Lucia, a country that has never had a social class of poor white people unlike islands like Barbados or Jamaica. This has affected the current socio-economic landscape of Saint Lucia and presents Saint Lucians with differing topics for discussion when it comes to race and class.

However, the existence of poor white people in other islands doesn't negate their racism. When reading the History of St Lucia (Devaux), there was a discussion about the virulent racism amongst poor white populations in other islands. Clearly, a lack of wealth amongst white people in the Caribbean does nothing to negate racism.Of course, there is far more depth to this subject, but this introduction is to highlight some of the complexity behind discussing race and class in the Caribbean. We should approach the subject with caution and we should not assume that the same dynamics of race and class in the United States exist here. However, this doesn't mean that the dynamics of race and class in the U.S. are irrelevant to the Caribbean, merely different. Or expressed in a different way.

A Proper understanding of race and class is especially important for those of us who believe that such matters do not affect our experiences or who do not see how these issues affect the experiences of others. When oppression is allowed to become invisible, it doesn't lose power -- it gains power.

Socioeconomic Class And Climate Change

As sea levels continue to rise in the Caribbean, our region will require long-term planning (ha) and forethought about how certain areas are affected and what the government will do to mitigate these effects. In Saint Lucia, particularly vulnerable areas include fishing villages like Dennery and Anse La Raye. The "village center" of nearly every district, including the capital city, Castries sits right at sea level. This means in the future, these areas will be disproportionately affected by the rising sea levels.

Socioeconomic class is something we pretend is invisible or unimportant in our region, but as the effects of climate change grow more widespread, the disparities between socioeconomic classes will differ immensely. We will see further income inequality as well as physical damage to our landscape and natural resources as climate change continues to unfold.

How seriously our politicians take climate change speaks to how much they genuinely care about the most vulnerable populations that they serve. (Remember, the government serves the people of the country.) In recent times, the views of certain politicians have become quite clear. Instead of working towards the preservation of natural resources or long-term infrastructural planning, our government appears to be occupied with furthering the expansion of foreign capitalists exploitation of our local lands and natural resources.

Our population is sometimes chided for their docility. This is largely revisionist history intended to encourage us to remain docile. (Yes, we're all the victims of reverse psychology.) However, Saint Lucia has always had a strong culture of resistance to exploitation and we can see that resistance continued today via the recent open letter sent to the Prime Minister of Saint Lucia. This resistance is just one step towards environmental justice. Our local National Trust organization is another front of resistance against environmental exploitation that has effectively aided in preventing a number of destructive practices on Saint Lucian lands.

As citizens, we will need to strengthen our commitment to direct action in favor of our short and long-term goals as a population if we are to successfully resist not just this attempt at exploitation, but the ones that are sure to happen in the future. When the ocean's waters start creeping up the coast and destroying the homes of our nation's most vulnerable, will be equally ready to defend them? When what is being destroyed is something we deem unimportant, we need to be equally prepared to stand up for what is right.

The action against the proposed inhumane practices at Pigeon Island National Park provides encouragement for our population. We will need to solidify and expand this action sooner than we think as we start to experience the damaging effects of climate change on our coasts. Going forward, Saint Lucians (and West Indians in general) need to strengthen our commitment to equality. We should pursue justice for the poor with the same fervor we pursue justice for areas of our island that command international respect (like our Pitons or Pigeon Island National Park). We have a lot of difficult work ahead of us as a nation, but we're beginning to return to our roots -- those roots of resistance that have served us throughout our people's history. 

Intersectional Feminism: The Spectre of White Supremacy in the Caribbean

 "The Caribbean is a melting pot where race doesn't matter!" Every time I hear that, I grit my teeth and wonder when omitting the history of the Caribbean became a trend to hop on. It's natural to want to defend the Caribbean against the harsh criticisms first world people heap upon us, but saying that race doesn't matter in the Caribbean is an ahistorical lie that denies the lived experience of millions of people in the region.Black people came to the Caribbean on slave ships and from that moment, everything in the Caribbean has been about race. Of course, race and class then became intimately intertwined. Today, having the name of a former slave master (the slave masters were all white) is a point of pride. White people make up the wealthiest populations in our islands. Many of my Caribbean friends from various islands have said, "I don't know anyone poor and white here." That coupled with whiteness is known to help in school, with employment and with other situations one may experience throughout your life.

Our countries all have a massive hatred of black features... White hair is seen as clean, tidy, neat and professional whereas black hair is automatically wild/unruly or something that needs to be "fixed". For those who think it's about "curls" and not whiteness... White people with curly hair are NOT subjected to the same treatment as black people. Throughout the Caribbean, black hairstyles are often seen as "untidy" and "unprofessional". Another belief about blackness being inherently bad is the idea that if you go into the sun you will get "too black" -- the same belief doesn't apply to getting "too white" however. People are applauded for their physical proximity to whiteness and punished for being black. Darker skinned people experience worse treatment and excessive teasing for their skin color. These damaging beliefs about their physical appearance and identity have long-lasting effects in people's lives, causing them to perpetuate race-based abuse on others as well as themselves. Any woman who has transitioned from relaxed to natural hair in the Caribbean can tell you that they faced significant pushback, indicating that the issue is widespread.

Some of the more subtle cultural preferences towards white people is the tendency for black people to refer to any white man as "boss". I've seen this with my father as well as my boyfriend (who is biracial but that often gets coded as white down here) where people who have no reason to, refer to them as "boss". It's a subtle, yet powerful way of indicating status and frankly, black people often believe themselves to be lower status than white people. There is no reason for black people to speak to white people differently from how they speak to black people, yet in the Caribbean, this is all too common.Another common experience of black people in the Caribbean is poor treatment by customer service staff. White people (thought to be tourists especially) are treated with politeness, respect and the gamut of perfect customer service. Black locals, on the other hand, are often treated poorly by those serving them for no reason other than their skin color. This poor treatment could be slowness, blatant rudeness or asking black people to leave certain areas for "being loud" even if they were not in fact being loud. (Yes! All of these experiences are real and have happened to various WI people I have spoken to on these issues.)

We pretend that whiteness is non-existent here, yet it is clear that being white in the Caribbean leads to better treatment overall. The occasional instance of bullying or someone charging you a higher price is NOT indicative of the larger experience of racism which occurs at an institutional level. Receiving less respect just because you're black can have a big impact. This can impact your job search for example or can have even more dire results when you're dealing with medical professionals who judge you simply based on your appearance. (Example: Do you look poor? Do you look rich? Guess which people look rich and which look poor. If you can guess, congrats, you just identified white supremacy in action.)

Wealth being concentrated in the same white population that owned our ancestors is also a clear-cut case of institutionalized white supremacy. We make the mistake of thinking you need a white cloak to be a white supremacist, but really white supremacy is a system that ensures white people have total dominance over every aspect of our society from economics to social interactions. It is something that clearly exists and affects the Caribbean today and something that we cannot ignore if we ever want equality of any kind whether it is for women, for the poor or any other marginalized group. If white people always have it better, we will never have liberation from oppression.